I love that moment near the end of Dr. Horrible’s Sing-Along Blog

…where the newly-triumphant, newly-tragic Dr. Horrible (having, through the same act, gained membership to the Evil League of Evil and killed the woman he loved) strides through a bar, receiving as he does kudos from various villainous patrons.

Dr Horrible

The bar is full of movement, but not the movement of conviviality or of joy. Instead, the pumping, almost hydraulic, up-and-down movement of the patrons – which, in the case of the cowboy trio with their stetsons and handlebar moustaches, tips over into the grotesque – has an edge of franticness, and of insistent hedonism that has left behind pleasure. The artificial lights, the looping lo-fi music, and the alcoholic drinks, abundantly visible, and aggressively brandished by the cowboys, complete the impression of seediness.

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I love this one shot near the end of ‘Who Are You’…

Context: ‘Who Are You’ is the the sixteenth episode of season 4 of Buffy the Vampire Slayer. It’s the episode where Buffy and Faith switch bodies (well, the switch happens at the end of the previous episode, but this is the episode where we see how it plays out). Faith is a wanted criminal, so Buffy-in-Faith’s-body is first arrested by the police, and then intercepted by muscle working for the Watcher’s Council. In the time it takes her to escape from her incarceration and return to Sunnydale to reclaim her body, Buffy has received a taste of how those who know Faith feel justified in treating her: she has been called trash, and her/Faith’s face has been spat at. Meanwhile, Faith-in-Buffy’s-body has received her own novel taste of what it is to be treated with love (both maternal and romantic), gratitude and respect. The two Slayers come face to face with each other/themselves once more when both independently learn that vampires are holding a congregation hostage in a church, and go there on a rescue mission. Once the vampires have been dispatched, Buffy and Faith fight it out on the church’s altar. Faith-in-Buffy’s-body gains the upper hand, and straddles Buffy-in-Faith’s-body while she directs blow after self-loathing blow and insult after self-loathing insult at her own face. What she does not know is that Willow and Tara have conjured Buffy a doohickey that will reverse the body swap. Buffy interrupts Faith’s onslaught by clasping her hand (in a gesture with the appearance – appropriately, given the location and aspects of the pair’s relationship – of communion). There is a glow, a shudder, and a rushing sound effect to confirm that the reversal has worked.

The shot

Faith

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Happy 50th birthday Joss Whedon

The 50th episode of Buffy the Vampire Slayer was, it just so happens, written and directed by Joss Whedon.  ‘Doppelgangland’ showcases many of the key strengths of Whedon and of his most fully-realised, successful story-world: a tightly-plotted, fantastical scenario, revolving around an established ensemble of eloquent and witty characters who are manoeuvred into a series of dramatically effective constellations, is used to create situations in which characters feel deeply, respond emotionally, and are placed in life-or-death situations, as a way of tracing out some of the contours of personal identity via interpersonal interactions.  This makes it a good episode to discuss as a way of marking its maker’s 50th birthday.

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All rocket launchers, no emotional resonance

(Next day update.  The below was written immediately after watching Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. for the first time.  Tonight I re-watched the episode, and warmed to it a little.  My understanding of the plot and the purpose of each scene certainly benefited from a second screening.  I still maintain that the agents feel like discrete plot functions – and somewhat lacklustre ones at that – rather than interacting characters, which is unusual for a Whedon pilot.  Usually, he deftly establishes not only a plot but a world and a set of relationships, as I suggest below.  ‘We’re not exactly a team’, Coulson tells its newest member at the end of the first episode, and he is about right.  However, perhaps as the series proceeds, we will see the ensemble knit together…)

What follows is a very personal response to Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. (which felt to me like a very impersonal programme).  In composing this blog I’ve repeatedly drafted then deleted a list of my Whedon-based activities over the past three years – drafted because it seemed necessary to give an idea of my massive investment in Whedon’s output; deleted because it felt like I was listing credentials and sounded like I was gearing up to whine about being betrayed.  I’ll just say that I’ve seen most of the stuff that Whedon has had a major hand in since 1992, and I’ve explored every televisual corner of the Whedonverse, much of it in a lot of detail (partly because I’ve been teaching it for three years).  On the other hand, whilst I have of course seen Avengers Assemble, I haven’t seen Iron Man, Captain America, etcetera, and have limited interest in – though certainly no hostility towards – Marvel superheros.

What I have to say against Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. is, I recognise, a version of an argument, or rather a series of arguments (about budgets and spectacle and characterisation and so on), that have been made many times before, and often with the person making the argument perhaps not being justified in demanding of a given text the thing it is deemed to lack.  It is, nevertheless, the argument I want to make, the one that I think is right and called for, and I will make it as carefully as possible.

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Beatrice and Benedick or Fred and Wes?

Beatrice and Benedick or Fred and Wes? Or, What does a knowledge of the Whedonverse add to Much Ado About Nothing (Joss Whedon, 2012)?

Despite a half-hearted Twitter campaign attempt by me, which never really got off the ground, to persuade someone to screen Much Ado About Nothing in Hull, I had to travel to Sheffield to get my Whedon fix.  I went to the marvellous Showroom and watched back-to-back screenings of the film.  So that, plus the travelling, was Monday night.  Tuesday night has been spent writing three pieces on the film, one of which is this, the other two being a short review and a longer piece for the excellent alternatetakes.co.uk, which will appear on that site soon.  Those other two pieces are critical writings in which the first person and the references to other Whedon stuff are held in check.  In this more personal forum, I thought it would be fun to see if and how it’s useful to read Much Ado through the other things its key performers have done with Joss Whedon.  What follows is pretty off the cuff and firmly in the celebratory mode, but I’d love it if any like-minded readers wanted to pitch in with supplementary or corrective comments.  (NB. I toyed with titling this post Much Ado About Buffy.)

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Neil Patrick Harris: details in performance

Details matter.  If I had to summarise the common thread running through my thinking and writing about popular culture to date, and if I had to paraphrase the bulk of my written feedback to students, that is the phrase I would use.

One of the many areas of filmed fiction in which details matter a great deal is performance.  But because it is harder to point to or quantify elements of performance with the same certainty that one can point to a camera movement, a cut, or even a musical score, performance does not always receive the central place it deserves in discussions of how meaning is made.

On my ‘Analysing Television Drama’ module, which takes Joss Whedon’s work as its case study, I often try in my seminars to put performance at the centre of the sequence analyses we undertake.  Sometimes, I encourage students to replicate the gestures of the actors onscreen in an attempt to ‘feel their way’ into a performance.  Or I encourage other forms of perspective-taking (‘If I were to speak to you in that way, or touch your shoulder in that way, what would it reveal about my attitude towards you?’).  The Buffy episode ‘Doppelgangland’ is a particularly useful tool for thinking about performance, as it involves the wonderful Alyson Hannigan giving sharply differentiated performances.  There is her ‘regular’ Willow, a high school teenager who is all hesitations and nervousness, and there is Willow’s vampire doppelganger from an alternative dimension, all self-possession and stillness.  Thinking about Hannigan’s two performances beside one another brings out more clearly the choices (of posture, eyeline, vocal inflections, movement) in each that create character.  (Fans of the Buffyverse will know that there are several other episodes in the series that could also be used in this way.  ‘Who Are You’, ‘Intervention’, ‘The Wish’…  And there is, of course, the whole of Dollhouse too.)  Alex Clayton has written a brilliant article, which emerged from his teaching, that compares performances in Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho and the film’s remake, directed by Gus Van Sant.  Early in his article Clayton stresses that ‘details matter, … they make all the difference’.

I have not yet taught Dr. Horrible’s Sing-Along Blog – a short film made on a slim budget during the 2007-8 Writers’ Guild of America strike and originally distributed for free via the internet – on ‘Analysing Television Drama’ (though it has made brief occasional guest appearances- and yes, I know it’s not strictly television ).  I am, though, a huge fan, so I thought I would mark Neil Patrick Harris’s fortieth birthday with a critical appreciation of his role as Billy/Dr Horrible.  Having watched and listened to Dr Horrible endlessly over the past several months, one of the main things I have come to appreciate is the level, and the depth, of detail in Neil Patrick Harris’s performance, which is at once consistent with the (admittedly few) other things I have seen him in (principally, How I Met Your Mother), and also of a piece with the broader achievements and sensibility of Joss Whedon, Dr Horrible‘s director and co-writer.  (The main body of my blog begins with a further brief digression, about the other Captain character Nathan Fillion has played for Whedon, but we get to Harris and Horrible soon enough!)

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Quantity and quality

I’ve been away from home for most of the working week at the excellent ‘Television for Women’ conference at the University of Warwick, so blog-wise I only have time for an ‘aside’ (a category of post that I’m glad WordPress provide among their options, making me feel less guilty about brevity). [Retrospective edit: the formatting of ‘Asides’ in the WordPress theme that I’ve chosen is sufficiently ugly to have led me to abandon using them (I love the rest of the theme) and to convert my existing ones to ‘Standard’ format.]

In what looks set to become a regular feature, I thought I’d point to a couple of things I found of particular interest in this week’s THE.  We’ll start with the dry one…

Here is the second paragraph of one of the cover stories:

A report by the Higher Education Policy Institute and consumer group Which? found that on average students works for 900 hours a year, far fewer than the 1,200 hours the QAA assumes are necessary for a degree, and calls on the watchdog and the government to investigate the issue.

This is interesting, and has several implications.  The first one that struck me was that in light of this finding, the percentages of contact time advertised in the Key Information Set (or ‘KIS’) for each UK undergraduate programme ought to be revised upwards.  That percentage is calculated by dividing the number of scheduled/timetabled hours a student has on each year of her/his programme by that aforementioned ‘number of hours the QAA assumes are necessary for a degree’.  So if the latter shrinks, the percentages go up, giving an almost certainly more accurate indication to parents, potential students and other interested (and perhaps sceptical)parties of the percentage of her or his study time the average student spends in guided activities.

The other piece that caught my eye was an opinion column, titled ‘Black-mirror narcissus’, pitched to the reader (of the print edition) like this: ‘This is the age of the anti-social network, but the humanities classroom offers reflection of a healthier sort, argues Robert Zaretsky.’  I don’t agree with everything Zaretsky says.  He rehearses Nicholas Carr’s arguments about ‘what the internet is doing to our brains’ somewhat uncritically, for example.  However, I share Zaretsky’s scepticism about the pedagogical model represented by ‘Moocs’ (‘massive open online courses’), and he articulates well the value, and the values, of the ‘humanities classroom’, and the need for both ‘dissemination’ (ie. lecture-based) and ‘dialogic’ (ie. seminar-based) forms of teaching.  Here is one of several eloquent passages:

humanities professors do what Shakespeare’s fool does: not only does he question the values and ambitions of the powerful, but, as with Lear, he also leads us to understand and empathise with the king’s flaws.  Yet he does so not in a circus tent, much less a king’s palace, but in the theatre – a place set apart from the noise and business of everyday life, a place where the audience forgets itself, all the while attending to the meaning of other lives.

One last thing: I’m very happy that the Whedonverse has met the Twitterverse.  Joss Whedon is finally tweeting as himself with his own profile, @JossActual.  I eagerly await a Slayage article about this exciting development, but for now I’ll just enjoy reading the tweets.